My favorite characteristic of Europe is that it affords you the opportunity to hop on a train, plane or bus, travel for a few hours, and step out into a completely new culture. There’s something freeing about waking up in Italy and falling asleep in Ireland or Poland or Sweden.
It makes it all the more wonderful when you’re traveling on budget airlines, paying only $40-80 for a round trip. And while saving money on airfare and train travel is appealing, it also means stuffing a week’s worth of clothes and toiletries into your carry on. No need to shell out an extra $50-100 on checked luggage or an over-sized bag. Unless you’re traveling for an extended holiday or business trip, it is entirely possible to fit everything into a regular-sized backpack. Considering I spent at least four days per week living out of a backpack for the latter part of last year, I learned what I did and didn’t need for my week(end) international trips.
First of all, it’s important to note that this isn’t a “backpacking around Europe” packing guide. I had (have) an apartment in Milan that I checked into before traveling to another country since I was coming back for classes three days a week. I was able to wash my clothes and restock my travel supplies when I returned to Milan. While this list can be used as guidance if you are traveling from hostel to hostel and using their laundry services, you may need to adjust it to better fit your needs.
Also note, my kind of travel is not for divas. It’s not glam. It’s not pretty. It involves wearing the same shirt or dress two or three times per trip, and I’m not packing my 5,000 hair and make up products sitting in my apartment. If you think this is the right packing post for you, then I’ll feel content that I was able to help you in some capacity…but I wouldn’t consider this the most luxurious (or the most hygienic, just keepin’ it real) packing guide.
With that being said, I only use my backpack when traveling internationally (as opposed to small, wheeled luggage bags or large totes) mainly because it’s smaller and I know how to fit exactly what I need in there. Also, then I don’t have to worry about rolling my bag through different terrains or up and down stairs. It’s easier to handle in large crowds and mass transit, and I can always spend a day with it on my back if I’m walking around and don’t have a place to store my luggage. It’s also nice in that it can either fit underneath the seat in front of me or in the overhead bin on my flight/bus/train ride without taking up too much room.
So, yeah, I’m pro backpack. I don’t use a fancy or expensive camping bag because I’m not taking a lengthy backpacking trip across Europe. My grey and tan Little America Synthetic Leather Herschel Backpack has served me well. It’s durable, big enough to fit everything I need, appealing to the eye, and it has a padded fleece laptop sleeve on the inside so my laptop/iPad is always safe. I used it on my college campus in Missouri and it joined me in adventuring to eight different European countries last year. The straps are padded and mesh so it never sits uncomfortably on my shoulders, and there are magnetic buttons, straps, and a drawstring on the outside to give it more protection against theft (personal opinion, but I do prefer it over a zipper).
Here’s what I’m traveling with and how I make the most of it:
Clothes. As you can imagine, packing your clothes is the most difficult part. I have a staple “travel outfit” for days where I’m on a plane or train to a country and walking or navigating public transit in a new city with my backpack. From there, I pack one or two alternative options in my backpack. Here are my suggestions:
- On the days you’re traveling to and from a country, wear a staple outfit like a comfy dress with tights/leggings or a comfortable tunic with leggings/jeggings/jeans. I almost always wear a comfortable cotton black dress that has three-quarter sleeves and hits just above the knees with a pair of tights that are comfy so I don’t have to worry if I’m walking long distances. You should plan on getting at least one more wear out of this outfit. Check the weather of your destination before you arrive to see if you will need a cardigan, winter coat, gloves, hat, rain jacket, etc. If needed, plan on wearing these when you travel to avoid using space in your bag. You can always throw the smaller items on the top of your bag or carry your jacket/coat (or tie it around your waist or shoulders) if necessary.
- After you choose your travel outfit, pick the alternatives, roll them, and pack them in the bottom of your backpack. I usually pack one alternative tunic or dress (two if my trip is 5-7 days) and an alternative pair of leggings/jeggings/tights/skinny jeans. Then I pack one sleep shirt and shorts. That’s it. I’ve never felt like I didn’t pack enough clothes, nor did I care if people noticed my wearing the same clothes multiple times. I pick dresses and tops that are a solid color (navy, dark green, black, etc.) with some sort of sleeves, usually three-quarter. My leggings/jeans are almost always black or dark denim. Notice, I’m trying to avoid stereotypical American tourist outfits like loud t-shirts, gym shorts, old tennis shoes, etc.
- Look at the dress code for certain places you’re visiting and adhere to cultural norms. I choose dresses and tunics/tops that are cotton, so they aren’t usually too tight. I make sure they aren’t too low cut and they always have some sort of sleeves on them. Many historic churches and museums ask women to cover their shoulders and wear a dress or skirt that is of appropriate length (most often, to your knees), hence why I wear comfortable tights underneath. The tights are also a personal choice to avoid flashing anyone if it’s windy or stormy 😉
- I only pack one pair of shoes, and they are on my feet, not in my bag. That’s right, no extra shoes for this girl. They take up too much room in my bag. That’s being said, one time I spent a week in Tuscany and my boots had worn to nothing by the second day, so I really bit myself in the butt. Since then, I have learned my lesson and splurged for nice, durable, and comfortable walking booties. Considering you will walk a lot when you travel in Europe, if you’re going to splurge on one thing before or during your trip, let it be shoes. I have a pair of comfortable and cute Bourne black ankle booties that are my staple travel shoes because they don’t hurt my feet after a day of walking many miles and they are very durable. They are also fairly weather-resistant, but I will bring my pair of grey rain booties instead if the forecast for my destination predicts a lot of rain or snow. You also wouldn’t look out of place in most European countries if you wore a pair of Converse All-Stars.
- How you pack your undergarments in a personal choice. Since I’ll be wearing the same outfits multiple times without washing them, I like it keep it fresh underneath, if you catch my drift. I pack a pair of underwear for every night and day I’m there, then a couple extra pairs. I usually wear a very supportive, comfortable sports bra and pack one extra, as well as an extra pair of socks.
- At night after I shower and put on my sleeping clothes, I hang up my used clothes either in a closet or draped over something wherever I’m staying (yet another reason I try to pick an AirBnb location over a hostel). I always pack a small can of clothes spray to spray my clothes at night after I hang them in attempt to keep my clothes fresher without washing them.
Toiletries. Since I often travel by airplane, I always keep my travel toiletries under three ounces. I have a soft zipped bag (about the size of an iPad mini) that fits all of my toiletries: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hairspray, deodorant, toothpaste, tooth brush, hair brush, face cleansing wipes, razor, etc. Instead of throwing away the empty bottles, I simply wash and refill them with my supplies at home so I don’t have to buy new travel-sized bottles. I keep this small bag packed at all times so I don’t have to use the same toiletries that I use in my apartment and I don’t have to repack it for every trip. It’s a grab-and-go bag, which makes the packing process much less stressful and I don’t worry about forgetting anything.
iPad & Camera. I alternate between my iPhone and my GoPro for taking pictures when I travel, so I always pack my GoPro and the charger when I’m going somewhere new instead of a bulky camera that takes up a lot of room. I put my GoPro in my bag of chargers (see below) so it’s not floating around unsecured in my backpack. Because I often need to do some homework or writing at night when I travel, I take my iPad mini instead of my laptop to save weight and space in my bag. My backpack has a padded fleece laptop sleeve, so I stuff my iPad at the bottom of the sleeve and secure it with my rolled I underwear (strange, I know…but it saves a lot of room at the bottom of my backpack since my underwear won’t be stacking up and it gives a soft cushion for my iPad).
Passport & Copies of Documents. Of course you need to bring your boarding pass and passport to travel internationally. Make copies of both of these if possible in case of an emergency. Also make copies of your visa, health insurance card, government identity card, credit card, and any other cards your traveling with in case your wallet or purse is stolen. Keep them in a folder in your backpack.
Bag of Chargers & Adaptors. Because there are so many different outlet options throughout Europe, I always pack a small bag of adaptors along with my chargers for my phone, iPad, and camera. I also bring a travel battery pack charger for iPhone that doesn’t require me to plug my phone into an outlet while charging, and I bring the charger for the travel battery as well. I keep everything in a small recycled zipper bag so nothing is floating around. I also have two very small drawstring cloth sacks that I use to divide my cables and wall plugins so it’s even more organized, and then I put those two cloth sacks into the recycle zipped bag. My GoPro fits snugly in between the two cloth bags so everything is tight and secure. I put in an extra pair of headphones as well.
Purse. While RyanAir will let you bring both a small purse and a backpack as carry on items, EasyJet does not. You will need to fit your purse into your backpack when going through security and boarding the plane (you can take your purse out and put your backpack in the overhead bin once you’re on the plane). This is obviously irrelevant information if you’re traveling by train or bus. I highly recommend bringing a small cross body purse that zips all the way across the top (like this purse I use from Fossil) to avoid being pick pocketed. Of course you want to bring a purse so you don’t have to lug around your backpack all week. In my purse, I pack my phone, my travel charger for my phone, my wallet, sunglasses, keys to the AirBnb flat or hostel, and a copy of my passport and visa (NOT MY REAL PASSPORT!). My passport stays safely in my backpack (which should stay safe if you’re using AirBnb and should be locked in a locker if you’re staying in a hostel).
So there you go. My guide to packing for up to a week in only your backpack. Of course, adjust it to fit your needs. This is just what works best for me. I’d love to hear your tips, ideas, suggestions, or questions. Comment below and share. This was a lot of information to read so kudos and many thanks if you made it all the way through.
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